Psychological Safety Reality or Illusion?
Psychological safety seems to be one of the current ‘things to do’ in the workplace. We’ll create a psychological safe culture and all will be well. I believe this is a simplified, and possibly illusional idea. This is because psychological safety is a personal thing. We cannot create psychological safety for others. Or can we?
The reason for my challenge is that while it is true that we have common core needs for feeling safe. These common needs vary in degree and intensity for each of us. They vary with our unique life experiences, our interpretations, our stories of what ought to be, and even our physiology. These are our personal variation that most other people are unaware. In addition each of us has our own personal ‘triggers’. You know those things that get you going, yet others, if not yourself, are often mystified by. As a consequence of this personal variation no one can make someone else feel safe.
What we can do is develop our ability to create the space, the conversational space, the being space, to increase ‘interactional safety’. By doing so we increase the chances that those in conversation, with us, will feel psychological safe enough to partake in the conversation. Interestingly, Timothy Clark (2020) puts forward an insightful theory around levels of conversational participation which are related to ones sense of psychological safety. So there it is not just being psychologically safe, it is also the level of psychological safety.
Creating psychological safety is a complex process, not least of all because it is a state not an action.
Creating a safe space requires understanding of the dynamics involved, an appropriate mindset, and the required skills. Yet before we can attempt to create interactional safety, for others, we must do it for our self. It is necessary for us to understand and manage our personal psychological safety needs.
Thus the ability to create interaction safety requires us to build a range of skills.
The main four skill sets are:
1) Being a psychological safe person.
2) Having intentional conversations.
3) Recognising safe relationships and having
4) The conversational skills required for difficult conversations.
To build our skills we need the appropriate mindset. This includes being:
1) Open to differences, not everyone wants to be or is the same as you;
2) Respectful, especially by recognising individual autonomy;
3) Patient, everyone has their own pace and
4) Kind, everyone will slip up at times and thus compassion is valuable.
Psychological safety is a state, an experience. While interactional safety is about actions taken to create that experience. Firstly for our self, this is an act of self-respect. Then for others, a foundational requirement for Respectful practice. While remembering we cannot force a state upon someone. The idea that we can create a psychologically safe culture tends to, at best, be simplified and at worst an illusion.
We can only create psychological safety for our self. We can create the space for others to potentially experiences psychological safety, but it really falls back on them. This is not a reason to not go for psychological safety, rather a note on the importance of recognising the difference between psychological safety and psychological interactions.
Four key skill sets to support creating a safe space are being a psychologically safe person, having intentional conversation, recognising safe relationships and having appropriate difficult conversational skills. While, four foundational mindsets are being open, respectful, patient and kind.
While it is possible to have the mindset and build the skills for psychological safe environments, the essential key for psychological safety is a personal one. It is up to us to claim and act on our responsibility to develop psychological safety for our self, to the best of our ability. Even then psychological safety is not guaranteed. Just as physical safety is not.